[ by Charles Cameron — Bush, Reyes and McCain as leading indicators of a difficult learning-curve ]
Here’s another in my series of posts taken from MOOCs I’ve been participating in. This one comes from the Changing World Order Coursera MOOC from Leiden University, and deals with the knowledge senior US politicians have shown of the distinction between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam — as fundamental as the distinction between Protestant and Catholic within Christianity, and similarly basic in that further distinctions of detail also merit our awareness and consideration.
I am posting it here today not just because it’s part of the series of “bigger picture” mini-essays [1, 2] I’m drawing together as I continue to participate in these MOOC discussions, but also so that I can link to it in my post on Nomenclature, ISIS and beyond.
Here’s the post in question:
As to the knowledge of these distinctions present in American politicians, here are some data points, one from George W Bush shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, one from the incoming Democratic chair of the House intelligence Committee in 2006, and one from John McCain in 2008.
President GW Bush:
A year after the Axis of Evil speech, President Bush met with three Iraqi Americans … As the three described what they thought would be the political situation after Saddam’s fall, they talked about Sunnis and Shiites. It became apparent to them that the president was unfamiliar with these terms. … So two months before he ordered U.S. troops into the country, the president of the United States did not appear to know about the division among Iraqis that has defined the country’s history and politics. He would not have understood why non-Arab Iran might gain a foothold in post-Saddam Iraq. He could not have anticipated U.S. troops being caught in the middle of a civil war between two religious sects that he did not know existed.
— Peter Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End
Rep Silvestre Reyes:
In 2006, the New York Times reported on Rep Silvestre Reyes’ answers to two questions:
- Is Al Qaeda Sunni or Shiite?
- Which sect dominates Hezbollah?
Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic nominee to head the House Intelligence Committee, failed to answer both questions correctly last week when put to the test by Congressional Quarterly. He mislabeled Al Qaeda as predominantly Shiite, and on Hezbollah, which is mostly Shiite, he drew a blank.
“Speaking only for myself,” he told reporters, “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”
— New York Times, Refresher Course for Congress: Telling Sunni From Shiite
Sen. John McCain:
Sen. John McCain, traveling in the Middle East to promote his foreign policy expertise, misidentified in remarks Tuesday which broad category of Iraqi extremists are allegedly receiving support from Iran.
He said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying the mostly Sunni militant group, al-Qaeda. In fact, officials have said they believe Iran is helping Shiite extremists in Iraq.
Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives “taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.”
Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.” A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate’s ear. McCain then said: “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda.”
— A McCain Gaffe in Jordan, Washington Post, 2008
Somewhere between intelligence and decision-making, there’s a gap…
Previous posts in this series: